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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Canons and Canon Formation

What are loosely termed the Qumran ‘biblical’ manuscripts comprise about 25 per cent of the total (about 220 out of nearly 900). However, the adjective ‘biblical’ with reference to Qumran manuscripts is strictly incorrect, since not only were there no ‘bibles’ at that time (second century BCE to first century CE), but very probably no fixed (‘closed’) canon of writings, or at least not one universally accepted. A number of religiously authoritative writings were, however, recognized and interpreted by the authors of the Scrolls, so that we can correctly speak of ‘scriptures’, and certainly of scrolls and scroll collections that would have formed an ‘open’ canon of writings that were regarded as definitive of Judaism—that is, of Judaism as understood by their readers; and while most of these scriptures were so regarded by all Jews, some were recognized as such only by certain Jewish groups. Among the Qumran scrolls, we can identify with some certainty both categories, but we cannot be certain of the criteria for canonical status, or of the boundaries between ‘canonical’ and ‘non-canonical’; without a fixed canon, in fact, such boundaries were probably blurred (probably more so than in modern Protestant Bibles with their ‘Apocrypha’).

We cannot, then, assume that the ‘scriptures’ of the writers and owners of the Qumran scrolls were confined to books belonging to the Masoretic canon (the Protestant ‘Old Testament’). Manuscripts of Tobit, ben Sira, various texts related to the figure of Enoch, Jubilees, and the Letter of Jeremiah, many of them still included in certain modern Christian Bibles, were also found at Qumran. In addition, it is not unlikely that such works as the Community Rule (S), the Damascus Document (D), or the Temple Scroll were accorded a canonical status of some kind by one or more Jewish groups. (That recently authored works could achieve a canonical status is shown by the example of the book of Daniel.)

But our main interest here is not in the ‘Qumran canon’ but in the Hebrew canon that eventually formed the rabbinic scriptures and (in a slightly different format) the Christian ‘Old Testament’. The Hebrew Bible is divided into three categories: law, prophets, and writings, and we find some evidence of this division in the Scrolls. In the Community Rule (1QS) 1: 3, for example, we read ‘as he [God] commanded by the hand of Moses and all His servants the prophets’, with a similar conjunction of ‘Moses’ and ‘the prophets’ in other texts also. The ‘law of Moses’ would have comprised the books of the Torah (the Pentateuch), and among the Scrolls are fragments of three manuscripts that appear to have contained at least two consecutive Torah books, suggesting perhaps that the whole Torah may sometimes have been written on one scroll, as in later Jewish practice. The scriptures referred to as ‘prophets’, however, may have included books later classified as among the ‘Writings’ (or even not represented in the Masoretic canon at all); Daniel and Psalms, for instance, were probably treated in this way, for David is explicitly named in one text (11QCompDav) as a ‘prophet’, and certain Psalm passages are interpreted in Qumran commentaries called pesharim as predictions. In this, the Scrolls in fact partly reflect the evidence of the New Testament and of the first-century CE Jewish historian Josephus, who in his Against Apion includes the ‘history’ books and Daniel among the writings of ‘prophets’. However, such a division was not necessarily definitive: in the Halakhic Letter (4QMMT) C11 we read: ‘… the book of Moses and the books of the prophets and of David and [the deeds of] each succeeding generation’, which may suggest that, along with the Psalms, some ‘historical’ books, perhaps those later designated the ‘Former Prophets’, were recognized, by this Scroll's authors at least, as a distinct category of scriptures.

Can we deduce more precisely what writings at Qumran would have been deemed ‘scriptural’ and what a ‘scriptural’ status would have entailed? It is impossible to be very sure. If the popularity of certain writings is a clue, then we have the following works in more than ten copies at Qumran: Torah (except Numbers); Psalms, Isaiah, Jubilees, Enoch, S (Community Rule), and D (Damascus Document). Can we suggest that the text of canonized scrolls was less subject to variety, more ‘stable’? No: Genesis and Leviticus display for the most part only slight textual variation, but Exodus and Numbers are each represented in two different versions, while Deuteronomy (with the largest number of copies) has the most fluid text of all the Mosaic books. The ‘prophetic’ texts show rather less stability than the Torah (as well as the Masoretic edition, the Septuagint edition of Jeremiah is also represented in its Hebrew form). There seems therefore no evidence of a concern generally to fix the texts of works regarded as scriptural (see further below). The degree of divergence in the text of any work may point, rather, to the length of period of transmission (and thus may help determine the age of composition, though this cannot be applied as a crude measure).

The use of the citation formula ‘as it is written’ has been suggested by several scholars as a mark of canonical status. Such formulae occur about seventy times, with reference to all the books of the Mosaic canon and also to select books within the Masoretic categories of ‘Former Prophets’ (Joshua, Samuel) and ‘Latter Prophets’ (Isaiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Amos, Micah, Zechariah, and Malachi); also to Psalms and Proverbs. But the texts that contain such citations are actually rather few (D, S, 4QFlorilegium, 4QTestimonia, 11QMelchizedek, and 1QMilhamah), and there is also at least one such citation of a book that is not in the Masoretic canon (Damascus Document (D) 4. 15 of a statement of Levi, son of Jacob). More significantly, the number of allusions to supposedly scriptural books without the use of a citation formula is also very large, and CD 16. 3–4 refers the reader to the Book of Jubilees in a way that suggests that it may have had scriptural authority. The author's predilection, the genre of the text in which the citation occurs, and perhaps the function of the citation may explain the use of a formula rather than some overt ‘canonical’ status.

Can we, finally, determine from the Qumran evidence works that all Jews recognized as canonical, as distinct from those so regarded only by certain groups? The use of some texts in argument with other Jews is a possible clue. Since Qumran scriptures, as we have seen, probably included works not so viewed in other Jewish communities or sects (for example, the Samaritans and Sadducees apparently regarded only the Pentateuch/Torah as canon), disputes with others could only be based on texts deemed ‘scriptural’ by all, or at least by those opponents who were being challenged. Of the Qumran texts possibly directed polemically to outsiders, however, only the Damascus Document (in part) and the Halakhic Letter clearly qualify. What is interesting, however, is that several prophetic books are frequently cited in D, alongside Torah. Does this tell us that Jews generally accepted these prophetic books as part of their ‘canon’? Or do we infer only that those engaged by the polemics (probably Pharisees) did?

There is one interesting case in which we can see a scriptural canon in the process of being compiled. The scroll of Psalms from Cave 11 has excited particular interest because its contents (corresponding roughly to Psalms 101 onwards in the MT Psalter) parallels the MT order only approximately, and it appends some additional psalms at the end (including Psalm 151, preserved in the Septuagint). Other Psalms scrolls at Qumran have different arrangements. Thus, while a Psalm collection was perhaps among the scriptures of most Jews, there was perhaps no universally agreed list of contents or order, at least for the last two sections (Psalms 90 onwards).

We can therefore conclude that the notion of a scriptural canon was shared at Qumran with other Jews, and that the core of this canon included Torah, prophets, and Davidic compositions. But we cannot infer a fixed or closed canon, or confine its contents to those books included in the Hebrew Bible.

Text and Textual Criticism

Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, our oldest Hebrew biblical manuscripts were medieval. Now, that date has been put back a millennium; we have copies of all the books now in the Jewish scriptures, except for Nehemiah and Esther; and in nearly every case we have multiple copies. While nearly all of these are written in the ‘square script’ of the period, a few manuscripts of Pentateuchal books use the archaic alphabet that it replaced somewhere around the neo-Babylonian or early Persian periods (sixth to fifth century BCE).

The manner in which what in retrospect we loosely term ‘biblical’ scrolls were transmitted, revised, glossed, and commented on suggests that our modern reverence for a canonical text as verbally sacrosanct does not apply to the writers of the Qumran scrolls. We do have, in most cases, multiple copies of each book (mostly in fragments); and here we encounter our first surprise: no two copies are exactly the same. Often the differences are minor, but sometimes not. Sometimes certain readings follow the Septuagint rather than the Masoretic Text, and indeed, we also find, as well as five manuscripts of the book of Jeremiah close to the canonized Hebrew Text, one, perhaps two, corresponding to the rather different edition represented by the Septuagint. In one remarkable case we have an entire passage now missing from 1 Samuel 10, probably accidentally lost from the canonized texts but preserved in one Qumran manuscript (4QSama) and now restored at v. 27 in the NRSV.

Is there any kind of pattern in the diversity of texts at Qumran? It was thought until quite recently that three local ‘families’ of texts, underlying the Masoretic Text (Babylonia), the Septuagint (Egypt), and a ‘Palestinian’ one (the Samaritan biblical text) could be identified. But the range of variation is too wide for this explanation. Although about 40 per cent of these ‘biblical’ manuscripts are fairly close to the Masoretic Text, a further 25 per cent show no systematic agreement with any of the three ‘families’. One group (a further 25 per cent) is distinguished also by its use of fuller spellings, characteristic of many non- ‘biblical’ Qumran manuscripts, and also by numerous errors and corrections. Some general conclusions to be drawn are as follows. (1) Many biblical books existed in differing textual versions from early on, and it is impossible (perhaps even inappropriate) to try to reconstruct an ‘original’ version—the original goal of many textual critics. (2) The owners of the Scrolls (and almost certainly other Jews as well) exhibited no great concern for a single authoritative text of these books. However, there is a possible qualification to this last conclusion: the text form finally fixed for each book (the Masoretic Text) was clearly widely adopted during the first century CE; the Qumran manuscripts may indicate that even in the preceding century this text form was predominating, though not in a single invariable wording.

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